Draping on the stand 0.16 – the cowl

Cowl tops are elegant and interesting. The bias is draped across the neckline giving a soft look to frame the face.  I wanted to learn how to drape one.

The cowl neck had its heyday In the 1930s, Often made in drapey silk, Jean Harlow models an evening dress in a typical Hollywood shot. Here the a bias cut evening gown is topped with a deep twisted cowl neckline. These sinuous dresses made the movies exciting for men and women alike, and most of the leading ladies show off their beautiful figures in these extraordinary, innovative dresses. Silk satin, woven with a long float of silk on the surface so the silk filaments reflect the light, ensure the actresses bodies were revealed and lit up under the bright studio lights. The female body was displayed in an entirely new way.

cowl neck
Jean Harlow in 1930s bias cowl necked dress

Although the cowl is preeminently a 1930s look, it resurfaces every decade.

The 1940s Vogue pattern for a full length evening dress (below) has the cowl cut separately in order to create a very shaped look across the torso. The 1960s were innovative too – Balmain’s structured cowl at the front is carried over the shoulder and creates a nice deep draped back, with Vogue 1819. The 1980s cowl has lots of pleating in the oversized shoulders to create several layers of drape. I like the way the fold comes over in front to create a scarf effect. And I love the 1990s Simplicity 7859 dress which is completely plain apart from that sweet cowl at the back.  As a short white linen dress it looks stunning.

Many cowls these days are made in jersey which is a different thing again. And cowls are a look that Vivienne Westwood has made her own, seaming fabric in a range of directions to create more interest, shaping and structure.  The two garments below appear to have been made from the same pattern. This is often the case with Westwood – she reuses the same patterns again and again – just changing the fabric or some of the smaller details.

Our tutor Daniel Kinne created a front, back and side draped cowl top and then we worked on our own design.

How to drape a cowl front blouse. This exercise is very dependent on the weight and type of fabric you use for the draping. Even light weight calico will give a fairly structured and crisp outline. If you use softer fabrics you will get a very different look. Bear this in mind when you choose fabric to create the pattern, ie choose a fabric with similar qualities to the fabric you intend to use. I used lightweight calico.

  1. Take a piece of fabric and tear off a square that is big enough to fit you when measured across the bias grain. We seemed to do fine with just the biggest square our fabric allowed.
  2. Block your fabric until you are confident the grain in lined up correctly. Press the fabric with a dry iron
  3. Fold in a triangle, matching two of the torn edges.
  4. Mark the true bias with a metre rule either by placing a row of dots, or by a straight pencil line
  5. On the stand line up the bias with the CF
  6. Take the two opposing corners and pin to the stand at either side of the neck. If you want your cowl to be symmetrical be accurate about where you place the first pin
  7. Allow a drape to be formed across the chest. You have lots of options in terms of where this first drape sits – very high up the neck (as I did) or relatively low down towards the apex of the bust.
  8. To a large extent the fabric will “tell” you where it wants to go.
  9. Now take up more fabric at the shoulders – creating one or more folds, pleats or gathers, and as you do so you will be able to add further layers of cowl in the front if you want a more dramatic look.
  10. Once you are satisfied with the design of the cowl smooth out the fabric across the lower part of the torso. When working with the bias smooth out along the straight and cross grain so as not to stretch the bias. Take up the fullness by creating darts, side seams or any other style preferences
  11. Mark the pleat (s) etc with the dots and cross marks. Mark the arm holes, side seam and hem. It is only necessary to do this on one half of the calico assuming you are creating a symmetrical pattern
  12. Check you have marked everything. Remove the calico from the stand and true all the marks you have made with pencil. Add seam allowance.
  13. Drape the back as desired, or match the cowl front up with your back torso block,
  14. Depending on the depth of the neckline you may or may not need an opening/fastening.
  15. If you are making a sleeveless top you may need facings for the armholes (or bias binding). It is likely that due to the design you will be able to self face the neck opening.

Have you ever made or designed a cowl top? Did you use flat pattern cutting or draping? If you haven’t draped before and have access to a stand then I would say this is a fairly easy project to get started on.

Here is my cowl blouse – I am pleased how I got  my cowl to go into a grown on slight funnel neck. And I like the placement on the shoulders. The use of the bias on the front give such a nice fluid drape. It has buttons up the back because I  really didn’t want to spoil the look of the cowl. (The skirt is Vogue 2034) 

I fancy making a dress like the Simplicity 7859 with the cowl at the back.

10 Responses

  1. Love your top, very stylish. Also love the 7859 dress. I really like dresses where the interest is in the back. The only problem for me is that I make my dresses for work and usually wear a jacket, so all it would look like is lumpy!

  2. I love bias cuts and draping on the bias gives a soft, flowing effect. Your top is very flattering. I love the soft funnel neck and buttons in the back don’t interfere with the front cowl. You are so right that fabric choice makes a huge difference in the final result.

  3. I would love to make the Balmain dress. It’s still so elegant after all these years. Alas no where to wear it in my oh so casual lifestyle

  4. Love, love, love that top–it suits you to a T.

  5. Stephanie

    This is lovely, Kate. Really soft and pretty. I have been wanting to make the Audrey Hepburn yellow dress from Charade for ages so this is inspiring me to get on that at some point soon! I think it has a small funnel with a bit of drape in front. The other patterns that you show are also lovely. I am less if a fan of the bigger cowls in jersey but that’s just personal preference.

  6. This is such an elegant top. Thank you for your precise and detailed instructions, I might just give this a go.

  7. Very nice top, the soft drapey folds at the neckline are lovely. Thanks too for the run down of so many different cowl styles.

  8. Cowls are so pretty, your top is lovely. I have made cowls in the past but only by flat pattern methods.

  9. Beautiful top Kate. The colour is really flattering – makes me excited for the Spring!

  10. Your top is gorgeous Kate. The cowl/funnel neck is very flattering. Love some of those vintage patterns and of course the Westwood tops.

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